Like her mother, Robbyn Wacker rises at 4:30 a.m. most days.
Alta Wacker, an administrative assistant, selected and then called substitute teachers for the school district at that time of day.
Robbyn Wacker prepares to lead a university of more than 13,000 students and 1,500 faculty and staff.
“I spend my time from 4:30 a.m. to 7 a.m. catching up on work, answering emails, and getting ready for the day,” Robbyn Wacker said. “I’m usually in the office by 8:30.” Wacker carries her lunch because it’s more efficient to work through lunch and get things done.
Her aim is a commitment to doing good work and making a difference equal to that of her mother’s. “She would say, ‘I want to make sure that whomever I select to be in that classroom is the right fit and will do a good job for our students’,” Robbyn Wacker said.
Teeds of learning, inquiry and adventure were planted early and deep by Wacker’s parents and early teachers.
They encouraged her desire for learning, to explore new experiences, and she aspires to continue seeking those goals even when she eventually closes the doors on her career as a professor.
“My parents were very instrumental in my life and my outlook,” said Wacker, who was inaugurated as St. Cloud State University’s 24th president this October.
“They were guided by a principle, though they never said it, that they wanted to make sure that I had the opportunity to experience things they never had the chance to experience.”
She had the bicycle her mother never had, and her mother made sure she had music lessons, participated in every sport available at the local park and recreation (even baton-twirling class), and went to summer camps.
“They made sure I was able to experience so many different activities and those experiences explain why I like adventure, trying new things and am someone who wants to be involved in a wide variety of activities.”
Her father, Reinhart, was a truck driver who delivered freight to businesses in Colorado Springs. He had a wonderful sense of humor and was kind and generous. He was a father that never limited what his daughter did because of her gender. Because of that Wacker knows how to change the oil in the car, mow the lawn, and fix most anything around the house. They also supported her desire to play flag football in the fifth grade and run for student body president in the sixth grade.
It was a lesson in self-sufficiency and confidence that is still with her today.
“He was never that articulate or explicit about it, but the message I got was that I could do anything. I shouldn’t be limited by my gender,” Wacker said.
“They were just so open and supportive of my exploration in all kinds of things.”
For Wacker, that easily translates to her life today.
“It’s how I view life now, with a sense of inquiry and curiosity. I want to learn everything I can, whether it’s trying to learn Italian or Mandarin,” she said. “It is simply the joy of learning. That is something they instilled in me, and I’m very appreciative of that.”
She can name teachers in elementary and high school days who also encouraged her. “I remember to this day how invested (Mrs. Hutchison, Mrs. Johnson and Mr. Overland) were in my education. They were always encouraging me to excel academically, like participating in science fairs, and after school clubs.”
In high school, her yearbook advisor, Mrs. Johnson, would take her skiing and camping.
“My parents were never able to do those things growing up. They didn’t ski. They didn’t hike. They didn’t camp. They were never afforded that opportunity,” Wacker said. “Mrs. Johnson was somebody who was just a joy to be around and she cared about my future.”
Wacker wants others to find that joy and is hopeful that she models the characteristics it takes to achieve it.
“Education truly opened doors of opportunity for me. That belief – that education is a powerful change agent, that education transform lives, that education opens doors to you that you never knew existed – is fundamental to who I am and what I try to accomplish for our students every day. It is my north star.
“It is really core to who I am, and in the true spirit of what my parents did for me, I want to pay it forward. I want to make sure that St. Cloud State University does that same thing for our students.”
As the first permanently appointed female and openly gay president of St. Cloud State, she believes she is uniquely positioned to give hope and encouragement to young people.
“I think symbolically it says to young women, that yes, you can be president, and yes, you can aspire to be a CEO,” Wacker said. “I’m proud that the search committee saw me for my experience and what I could bring to this position and was not dissuaded by the fact that I was a woman.”
“I want people to see me for who I am and the quality of my character – that I’m an honest, ethical, kind person who is authentic and yes, competent. I am someone who has a kind heart and a tough spine, that I’m Robbyn, and I want people to know me for who I am in that regard.”
It’s similar with regard to being gay, she said. I don’t know that when I was growing up that I ever believed I could be in such a visible position, but I am grateful that times have changed during my lifetime. I want LBGTQ students to never give up hope or be discouraged and to know that there are people who will support you and value your contributions in life and work.
“I believe it is important to be true to who you are and being proud of who you are will serve you well in life. It certainly has me.”
First-generation college students get special attention in Wacker’s commitment. That’s not surprising. Once, she was one of them.
“We know that a significant number of first-generation students are coming with a lot of hope and aspirations. The investment we make in those students is truly transformative,” she said. “I look at my life, and I see what it did for me. I want students to have that opportunity.”
To help achieve that, she’s a listener before she’s a talker.
“I come from a place of inquiry because I think listening to understand means you’re asking questions. How did you come to that conclusion? What were the things you were thinking about?” It is the opposite of making assumptions or jumping to conclusions, which is never constructive.”
While friends and supportive colleagues describe that as one of Wacker’s strengths, she has faced criticism for her process.
Some might say that in listening too much, she takes too long to make decisions, she said.
“I’m one of those folks who needs to externally process ideas and concepts, at least initially,” she said. “But at the end of the process, I’ll still make the decision in service to what I believe is best for the institution in consultation and after hearing all these different voices.”
An open university atmosphere, where lots of voices are heard, stimulates Wacker.
“Maybe I see the link to a democracy there; that people need to have opinions and express their voice and come with different perspectives,” she said. “We should welcome that, and I do welcome that.”
She hopes friends describe her as generous and kind with a good sense of humor.
“Somebody who genuinely cares about other people and somebody who doesn’t take themselves too seriously, but is serious about the work, she said.
Wacker’s typical day ends like it starts – early.
“I try to get home by 6, we have dinner and I work out on the elliptical downstairs. I exercise for 30-45 minutes and watch something mindless like ‘American Pickers,’ or ‘Antiques Roadshow’. Sometimes I’ll listen to a podcast like ‘Hidden Brain’ or ‘On Being’.”
Saturdays are for errands and athletics or arts events at the university. She enjoys being active and outdoors and connecting with people and friends. When time and weather permits, she and spouse Jani Malkiewicz will get in a round of golf.
“I try not to do too much work on Saturdays which means I try not to check emails.”
Sundays start with a relaxing breakfast that typically includes French toast, scrambled eggs and a latte.
“Sunday afternoon I start getting back into the swing of things for work and getting prepared for the week.”
Her interests outside of work feed her love of inquiry and discovery.
“On those Saturdays when I’m not working, I try to get into my iTunes and check out new music.”
She enjoys live music from opera, folk, pop, to symphony performances.
But her last concert? Pink.
“Our musical tastes are pretty broad. I’ll listen to just about anything.”
She and Malkiewicz enjoy the experience of a good dinner out.
“That’s a real treat to go out on a Saturday night and have a good meal, a glass of wine and unwind a little bit.”
Her reading interests center on biographies and history.
She recently completed Walter Isaacson’s new “Leonardo da Vinci” biography and is finishing “Gathering Moss,” a book about the natural and cultural history of moss by Robin Wall Kimmerer.
She sees parallels to life in them.
“Whether I am reading about nature, history, psychology or sociology, there is always something new to learn and an opportunity to think about how the topic applies to your own life. I had no idea that mosses exist in every part of the world and are interwoven with countless other organisms. Who knew that mosses can teach us about living effectively in an ecosystem?”
Doris Kearns Goodwin’s latest book, “Leadership,” waits on the table in Wacker’s home office.
She loves to travel, exploring new places and cities and culture.
“Every city has a new personality,” Wacker said. “I love downtowns, and I love bookstores. There’s something about the character and personality of bookstores that I enjoy.”
She often searches for local restaurants that are off the beaten path.
When she came to St. Cloud, she went to Kay’s Midtown Café on Division to get some local flavor.
“It’s unique and has a wonderful personality. And the people are as wonderful as are their pies,” Wacker said.
Val’s on St. Cloud’s East Side is on her list of places to visit.
For now, she looks forward to being settled in the new home she and Malkiewicz picked out in southwest St. Cloud. It’s been a whirlwind moving more than 25 years of memories and their golden retrievers, Zoe and Kemmer, from their previous home in Greeley, Colorado.
She’s grateful for the support Malkiewicz and other family and friends showed for her decision to accept the St. Cloud State position, and for the warm welcome they have received from neighbors and colleagues and the community.
“The way we looked at the move is that we still have our friends in Greeley and elsewhere in Colorado and now we have the opportunity to add new friends and new experiences to our lives.”